Punks, Jocks and Justice

There was a killing and now a conviction. Even those can't stop the fierce war raging between the Panhandle punks and athletes of Amarillo.

The loss hit hardest in the Deneke household. Mike and Betty Deneke had struggled to hold onto a relationship with their son as he ventured deeper into a lifestyle so utterly alien from his parents' small-town Kansas upbringing. His music, to them, was noise. They didn't understand his fondness for blue hair, or some of the creepier friends who trooped through their house, or his disdain for school.

They always fought to understand, and today their grief hides an earlier, deeper heartache, the fact that in some ways, they had lost their son long ago.

The final break wasn't any less agonizing because of it. Betty Deneke was hanging yule decorations in her living room that night; the family still spent Christmases together. Their son Jason called her from the IHOP. He was crying, but he wouldn't say what had happened.

Chris Oles and Jacqui Balderaz return to the scene of Deneke's death.
Chris Oles and Jacqui Balderaz return to the scene of Deneke's death.
Friends say Brian Deneke had the magnetic charm to be a punk leader.
Mark Graham
Friends say Brian Deneke had the magnetic charm to be a punk leader.

She recalls this in words so soft, they are barely audible. But no words of explanation were needed when she arrived at Western Plaza and saw the blood, the yellow sheet and the form of her son's body beneath it.

For a while she thought she was fine. She didn't understand the pathology of shock, the numbness that allows you to live, for a time, in a mental safety zone.

It doesn't last.

Elise Thompson crashed hard after finals week at Tascosa High. She couldn't sleep; she'd awaken with horrible nightmares, like watching herself murder the girls in her Bible study.

She became so depressed, so immersed in guilt that she had done nothing to stop Deneke's death, that she shuffled around in dirty pajamas for weeks, refusing to bathe or brush her teeth. Her reasoning, such as it was, was that if he could no longer participate in the mundane activities of life, then neither should she.

Eventually Thompson went into therapy. It helped; the nightmares faded, and what she knew in her mind, that she hadn't caused Deneke's death, eventually seeped into her heart.

It was a long process, enough time to scrutinize every indelible image countless times.

After the "wreck," as she calls it, she and Rob Mansfield didn't speak to Dustin Camp, who was eventually transferred from Tascosa to an alternative high school to finish his studies. But Thompson reached some conclusions on her own.

Despite his callous words before and after the impact, Thompson decided that Camp had made a dreadful mistake, albeit one borne of prejudice, cowardice and fear.

"I don't think he was being rational," she says. "I really think that Dustin hitting people with the car was out of fearŠ.He wanted to help his friends, but he didn't have the courage to get out and fight with his fists. So he fought with his car."

She offers her opinion without anger or guile. Yet her words softly damn him.

That same duality was present in her speech as class valedictorian of Tascosa High that spring.

What she hadn't realized at first was that Camp would be at her graduation, allowed by school authorities to collect his diploma at Tascosa. With a teenager's inordinate fear of hurting someone's feelings, she showed him the text of her speech and sought his permission to mention the wreck.

"Well, he read it," Thompson recalls, "and he looked at me, and he was like, 'This sounds great, you've done a good job, I hope it goes well.' "

As she mounted the stage at her May 28 graduation this year, she prayed silently. She recalls that the words came with ease:

"The evening of December 12, 1997, was the most traumatic and valuable experience of my life," she began. "I was a passenger in a car that hit and killed a young man during a fight, a fight which took place between two groups of people who wore different types of clothes. And yes, if time could be turned back, any person in that car would have changed the outcome."

She spoke about her guilt, her depression and being forced to measure the value of a life.

Even the value of Dustin Camp's life.

"Some are black, some are white, some are brown Š some rich and some poor. But always human," she said. "So I challenge you and me, all of us, to break through the stereotypesŠ."

Something that, in the case of Brian Deneke's death, only she was able to do.

August 20, 1999. The trial will be remembered as a great Texas tragedy. The air-conditioning went out. It continued pushing air, but it wasn't cooling anything.

Local lawyers would comment that this was the hottest trial Amarillo had seen in decades. The courtroom, with 49 seats, was full every day.

Cops and bailiffs seemed prepared for the worst. Punks and jocks and their respective families were ushered to bathrooms on separate floors. In the courtroom, they occupied different sections.

Seated on opposite sides of the room, Mike and Debbie Camp, who ran a repair shop, and Mike and Betty Deneke actually looked eerily similar. Middle-aged, middle-class, small-town.

Emotions ran high everywhere. In this atmosphere, Clark, Camp's attorney, waged total war. In his opening statement, he set on end the swell of sympathy for the punks that had begun showing up on the local paper's editorial page. If anyone expected respect for the victim, even a token offering of shared grief, they didn't understand the ferocity with which Clark would defend his client.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Jocks are Americas scourge.They think they are above the law and are worshipped as all American by conservatives. They deserved to get shot when they messed with the wrong people in Colorado.

Houston Concert Tickets